Purpose in life has become a key construct in positive psychology. From a theoretical perspective, psychologists like Victor Frankl postulated that the sense of purpose and meaning in life is crucial for optimal human functioning. Purpose in life is understood to be central to the meaning-making system that counters meaninglessness. As such, purpose in life is a central component of psychological well-being. According to this view, it is purpose in life that makes living worthwhile and which helps to prevent despair from leading to negative outcomes, such as suicide. Various attempts have been made by psychologists to measure and assess the extent to which purpose in life varies from one person to another. Recent research has suggested a significant link between purpose in life and religion.
Early research concerning purpose in life focused largely on the relation between this construct and various psychopathologies. Lower levels of purpose in life were found to predict higher substance use, greater levels of stress, depression and suicidal ideation, and higher levels of general anxiety. More recent research has demonstrated how higher levels of purpose in life predict various aspects of positive psychological adjustment and well-being, including positive affect, life satisfaction, self-image, self-esteem, and better health. There is every reason, therefore, to take the development of purpose in life seriously during childhood and adolescence.
The idea of purpose in life is also central to many religious traditions and theological perspectives, as discussed, for example, by Paul Tillich. According to this tradition, the God whom we meet in the ground of our being gives meaning and purpose to existence and provides a strong counter to existential anxiety and existential meaninglessness. Against this kind of theological background, it is reasonable to hypothesize that optimal religious and spiritual development should be associated with a higher sense of purpose in life. In a series of recent studies, Leslie J. Francis has developed a psychologically based theory to account for such a hypothesized link between religion and purpose in life. This theory focuses specifically on the religious aspect of prayer and suggests that young people who pray are, consciously or unconsciously, acknowledging and relating to transcendence beyond themselves. Acknowledging such transcendence and relating to that transcendence through prayer places the whole of life into a wider context of meaning and purpose.
The evidence from the empirical studies conducted by Leslie J. Francis confirms the hypothesized link between personal prayer and purpose in life among young people during childhood and adolescence. These studies have controlled for other variables that might contaminate the relationship between prayer and purpose in life. The finding has always been the same: young people who pray also enjoy a higher sense of purpose in life. This is even true for young people who never attend church, but nevertheless pray.